How to Use Images on Your Book Cover

Stock Photo Websites

The image on the cover of your book can have as much impact as the titles. So if that image isn't up to scratch, it could have a massively detrimental effect on how your book is perceived by potential buyers.

Your cover design is a vital part of your book's marketing, so if you’re serious about making your book look and feel as professional as possible, you must take your time and put some effort into finding the best image possible for your cover.

For starters: please don’t use artwork that your children, mate down the pub, or the dog made on a rainy afternoon last weekend. Unless they’re a professional photographer, illustrator or graphic artist.

Try and avoid those ‘humorous’ downloadable clip-art cartoons that look like they’ve come from a 1970’s British seaside postcard. Unless you are writing a book about 1970’s postcard art. And probably not even then. I can tell you right now, this type of artwork is not the best fit for your audience and your book, and it rarely improves or adds anything to a design.

When I research images to use in cover designs, I scrutinize hundreds of styles to find the right fit.  

If I don't illustrate the cover myself, or I'm supplied with client photos from a commissioned shoot, I scour stock image sites, each with a catalogue of thousands of images. Depending on client budget, I often then retouch or alter stock images in Photoshop, or even blend several together to make a new hybrid image for the cover design.

Take some time to find not only a good, strong image, but one that works for your cover layout and the direction of your brief—it has to be relevant or you'll confuse your reader.

How Do I Find Images For My Book Cover?

There are two main ways to get images for your book cover:

  • Create images from scratch by hiring a photographer or illustrator to make them:

Commissioning a photo shoot or illustration can be costly and will take some time. It's fantastic if you have the budget to do this, because you'll end up with completely unique images to use on your cover (and in your marketing), but it's not going to be feasible for every author.

You could also shoot photos yourself, especially if you have some good photography skills—but you also run the risk of bad quality images appearing on your cover and, of course, it adds to your workload. 

It doesn't always follow that you can legally use your own photos for commercial use either.

If there are any brand names or logos in your photo, you would need permission from the owners or risk legal action. Any human featured in a photo must give permission for you to use their image on your cover, and you could even get into trouble for photographing certain landmarks which are protected, like using a photo of the Eiffel Tower at night (oddly enough, daytime is fine), or the Hollywood sign.

  • Buy Stock Photos:

It used to be difficult to deal with stock photo agencies unless you were in publishing, but now it's incredibly easy to find high-quality images online through a stock website.

I do get that you have a budget, and that it might not stretch to commissioning your own images, but it’s pretty simple these days to find good quality stock photos (or graphics, or illustrations), to enhance your design instead of making it look amateurish.

Skimping on image quality (and I’m not just talking about fuzziness) really isn’t the place to save money.

DO NOT (it’s in capitals, so it’s important) just download a web image from a Google Search result to use on your cover. There are two main reasons for this:

  • It's likely that you'll be breaching the image creator's copyright by using it
  • Poor quality images will ruin your book cover

How to avoid breaching Copyright (Not the writing that sells sort—that's copywriting)

When you find an image you'd like to use, mooching away around the internet, someone took that photo, or drew that illustration, and so they own the copyright on it, unless it’s specifically labelled otherwise (see the TIP 1 box below). Photographers and Illustrators earn part of their living by granting a licence to reproduce their images, or selling them to stock sites (part of what you pay for when you download a ‘bought’ stock image).

That image is theirs and they can control how it’s used—and that might not include letting you use it to represent certain subjects on your book cover.

For example, I know artists and typeface creators who write a clause on their licences stipulating that their work can’t be used for reproduction in any religious context or material, because they feel passionately that they don’t want the association.

They may also feel strongly about you reproducing their image, without their permission, on the front of your book, which is a commercial item (earning you money) and potentially sold worldwide. If you're using their image without licence and permission, you're not only breaking the law, you're stopping them earning a living.

TIP 1 - Google Image Search Usage Rights:

If you want to use an image from a Google Image Search elsewhere (please, not on your book cover though), you can check whether it's legal for you to use by clicking on the Image Search 'Tools' menu under the Search bar. In the menu is a 'Usage Rights' dropdown where you can filter the images you're looking for. If you want to use an image where you'll have some commercial gain from doing so, don't use any images labelled for 'non-commercial use' or 'non-commercial use with modification'.

I would advise with any image that you check the source and licence details to be sure you can use it legally.

Better still, use a reputable stock source for your book cover: the image quality alone is likely to be way better and the licence details will be much clearer.

How (and Where) to find top-quality stock images 

Images reproduced on the web are quite often optimised at around 72dpi (dots per inch = the number of pixels in a given area). That’s fine for digital viewing because it keeps the file size down for fast browser loading and still allows a clear image, but in printed reproduction, the image resolution needs to be at least 300dpi to give a high quality, sharp appearance. 

Poor quality, fuzzy or jagged images will ruin your book cover, so how and where do you find good quality images for something as specific as your book subject?

My advice is visit a good stock image website (i-Stock, Getty Images and Shutterstock, amongst others, are all worth a look) and download one from there. You get a licence included (read the terms to make sure they match your use before you purchase—see TIP 2 below), and the image quality will be of a professional standard.

Most sites operate by charging for a Royalty Free licence on an image—once you've purchased it you can use it forever. This makes them tons more affordable than Royalty based images. 

(Royalty based licences are where you pay the image creator a Royalty fee based on use. If you commission a photographer or illustrator, this is the type of licence you'll agree—more on that another time).

If you’re looking for a free option, open-source stock sites like Unsplash and Pixabay are excellent alternatives. Just bear in mind that if you are using one of their images for free, chances are that tons of other people worldwide are as well, and the same image could crop up on another book cover somewhere.

Also double-check the creator has given a free licence for commercial use so you’re able to use the image on the cover of the book you will be selling for commercial gain.

TIP 2 - Stock Photos: Is the Licence right for you?

The Standard Royalty Free Licence you get with Stock images has a number of terms and restrictions. Every agency sets a limit on the amount of digital and physical reproductions you can make an distribute using the image. Obviously, this is important to look for when you're publishing a physical book and an e-book, so the the two main clauses you should look out for are:

  1. The Print Run Limit - make sure this is wide enough to accommodate the number of copies you want to print. For example Shutterstock's Standard Licence allows an image to be reproduced 500,000 times physically. So that includes both your book and any other form of physical reproduction added together.
  2. Digital Distribution Limit - check any restrictions on digital reproduction for your own commercial gain. 

An Extended (or Enhanced) Licence is usually a bit more expensive, but it will give you a wider scope of use, wider print runs, and if you're intending on using the image widely on merchandising (like t-shirts, posters or mugs) you'll be covered.

Keep focused on your brief when looking for your image

The last point i'll mention is that you can literally lose days hunting through stock image sites. 

It's remarkably easy to get distracted into looking at millions of photos or illustrations while your brain starts dribbling from your ears, and completely lose track of the mission you're on, which is to find a stunning, but suitable and relevant image to fit your cover design.

Follow these steps to help keep you on track:

  • Make sure you set yourself a time limit on image sourcing
  • Take regular breaks to check back on what your brief tells you 
  • Write yourself a list of keywords to search with, and refine them as you go.

It's hard to stay open minded to inspiration, while at the same time keep focused on what you need to find, but there is a balance.

I recommend setting up a named 'lightbox' or 'group' on the stock site to save thumbnails into quickly. then go back and appraise them at the end of a session. You should be able to pick around 5-10% of the strongest images worth downloading to try out on your cover designs. 

NOTE: At this stage, just download the thumbnails with the watermark on to test them—there's no point in paying for photos or illustrations you'll probably discard.

When you've done this, refine the group again, or go back to the site with these in mind to find variants that might work better in your own layout.

Eventually, with some tweaking or retouching, you'll get a stunning image that works with your design and makes your book cover come alive!

Here's a quick summary of the most important points to remember when finding an image for your book cover design:

  • Your cover design is a vital part of your book's marketing, so take your time to research images and make sure yours is suitable, relevant and attractive—does it fit your design brief and make your cover spectacular?
  • If you have the budget, you'll get something unique and exciting by commissioning a photographer or illustrator, but it can be time consuming and pricey.
  • For smaller budgets, use stock image websites to find high-quality, licenced images to use on your cover (i-StockGetty Images and Shutterstock, amongst others, are all worth a look)
  • If you’re looking for a free option, open-source stock sites like Unsplash and Pixabay are pretty good and get updated all the time 
  • Make sure your images are high-quality (at least 300dpi for print) 
  • Check your image use is legal—is the image cleared for commercial use on your book cover?
  • Check the Standard licence is correct for your use—do you need an Extended/Enhanced licence to accommodate your print run number, or merchandising uses? 
  • When searching stock image sites, keep an open mind, but always focused on your design brief. It's easy to get distracted and waste time on irrelevant images.

Start Designing an Awesome Book Cover Today

I'm on a mission to help self-publishing authors get the pro-level book cover designs they deserve. If you want to learn more about designing your own book, you can check out my blog for more articles and guides. 

If you want a little (or a lot) more help, find out how you can work with me

About Julia

Julia Brown

Julia is a motorcycle-riding, cat-herding, food loving artist, illustrator and book designer. She loves food and cooking but then has to run it off at some point later.

She takes great pleasure in making paintings and artwork to sell, and with her design hat on, she helps self-publishing authors get high-end book design and illustration to boost their marketing and help them sell lots of books — all without having to approach big scary design firms.

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